Monday, October 25, 2010

The Invisible Man

As the 1930s dawned in America, Universal Pictures was on the verge of economic disaster. Never considered one of the big studios on par with MGM or Warner Brothers, they lacked the star power to compete for the entertainment dollars of a public suffering in the midst of the Great Depression. Their salvation was to become the first great studio of American horror pictures, and movies like Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy kept them afloat. This meant they were always on the hunt for a new weird property, and some years previously they had acquired the film rights to H. G. Welles classic novel The Invisible Man.

The project was attractive enough to attract the attention of their great auteur, director James Whale, who had already given them Frankenstein and The Old Dark House. In addition to his talent and track record, Whale was a favorite of head of production Carl Laemmle, Jr. which allowed him a great deal of leeway in his films. The chief obstacle to overcome was finding a usable script, and no less than 14 writers had presented treatments, including Preston Sturges, who placed his story in revolutionary Russia, and one where the story took place on Mars. Whales’ chosen author R. C. Sherriff finally discovered the proper approach for the film – to follow Welles original story as closely as possible.

The original choice for the lead was Boris Karloff, Universal's biggest horror star, who had already starred in Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Old Dark House. Karloff, however, was locked in a bit of a contractual dispute with Universal, and either didn’t accept or wasn’t given the role. Whales’ choice Colin Clive was interested in the part, but wanted to return to England to be with his family, and couldn’t do it. After considering a few other candidates, Whale settled on the stage actor Claude Rains, who would make his talking picture debut, reportedly after hearing his impressive voice on what was supposedly a horrible audition tape. Since the main character was invisible, the acting would be mostly done with voice, after all.

The film opens with the arrival of the heavily bandaged Griffin at a public house in the rural English town of Iping, where he rents a room. Griffin alienates the proprietors of the house with his aggressive and violent behavior, and they soon discover that beneath his bandages, Griffin is completely invisible. After being exposed, Griffin terrorizes the small town, and then returns to London. It seems that Griffin was a research chemist who wanted to perfect invisibility to impress the woman he loved, Flora Cranley (Gloria Stuart), the daughter of his boss Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers). He forces his former co-worker Kemp (William Harrigan) to shelter and assist him, as he alternates between lucidity (searching for a potion to reverse the invisibility) and madness (a grandiose scheme to rule the world). Griffin’s mental state deteriorates and he begins killing people, individually, and en masse, by derailing a train. The country mobilizes to end his reign of terror.

Many movies made at the dawn of the talkie age are hopelessly dated now, but The Invisible Man holds up surprisingly well. Whale was one of the true visionaries of cinema, balancing the grotesque with a campy playfulness. There is some real humor here (My favorite line is when a policeman calls in to his sergeant, tells him he’s encountered an invisible man, and asks what he should do. The sergeant replies “Put more water in next time.”) amid a reasonable amount of chills. The cast is excellent; particularly the great character Rains, even though he is only seen in the final scene. He was one of those actors who made every project in which he appeared better. Look for Walter Brennan, John Carradine and Dwight Frye in small, uncredited roles.

The special effects aren’t that astounding by modern standards, but were fairly cutting edge by the standard of the day, and still do a reasonable job presenting the idea of an invisible protagonist.

The Invisible Man was a huge success in 1933, and helped Universal stave off disaster for a few more years. I think any modern viewer who can watch a film in black and white and put themselves in a mindset three-quarters of a century in the past would still enjoy it.

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